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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Hell That Is
Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven

Also see Bob's review of The Last Fall

Mariam Habib and Jack Moran
Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven accomplishes the dubious and extraordinary task of being both extremely soporific and maddeningly offensive. Everyone has their breaking point, and Mahida had me contemplating fleeing screaming from the theatre as I warily viewed the stage between the fingers which I was holding over my eyes to blunt the pain that it was inflicting.

The sliver of a story is set in a small town on an island near the Canadian border. Thomas, a young painter, encounters Mahida, an exchange university student from Iran, as she sits on a pier bench waiting for a ferry, unaware that the day's last boat has departed. Her brother Ramin, who has become an Islamic fundamentalist, has come to the United States and shown up that morning at her university ordering Mahida to return to Iran with him. Angry because of her refusal to do so, Ramin had ordered her from his car, forcing her to walk miles to the pier. Thomas arranges for Mahida to stay overnight at his mother Edna's house. Edna is an ignorant, casually bigoted, gun-toting (let's say it together) conservative. The next morning Ramin shows up at Edna's house while Mahida is out with Thomas. This makes it convenient for Davis to tell us that Ramin has been driven to Islamic fundamentalism because of the evil of America's interference in the Middle East, and that Ramin has studied in madrasses in Pakistan and Lebanon where he has acquired an understanding and appreciation of Judaism and Christianity. Ramin is driven into a rage by Edna's insulting racist comments (which he begs her not to ignorantly continue). After Edna pulls a gun on Ramin, he disarms her, breaking her jaw in the process. In Mahida's most interesting bit of dramaturgy, Davis withholds the information as to how this confrontation ends to the end of the following scene to set up the audience to fear that Ramin has murdered her.

Playwright Russell Davis is a pretentious, boring writer whose characters express themselves in phrases never spoken by actual human beings. Words which might be the province of a written essay or of a character's thoughts in a novel are here the stuff of casual conversation:

I think about borders all the time. What is a boundary, I wonder, between what lasts and what does not? What are my real thoughts, and not my thoughts? what is honest, or dissembles? Blesses or curses? What is the boundary, do you know, between these things? What decides? And what possible border could there sometimes be, I wonder, when there is all the infinite space, as you say...

And so I look at our bench here. It makes me glad. There is a border. A little railing to hold on to. A path to take. Because, of course, someday we can let go. Be free to enter all the infinite space around with no border, no sense of limit. But I do believe, for now, it is important not to let go of this railing we have. It is important not to presume.

This palaver is likely an analogy about international relations (although Mahida speaks English very well, if a bit stiffly, how likely is her use of the word "dissembles"). This is deadly as theatre. Even more enervating is when Davis has Mahida read aloud a piece that she has just written. It is an excerpt (four times longer than the quotation above) from an allegorical fairy tale. Mahida is a cousin to the preternaturally wise and loving child in Davis' stupefying The Song of Grendelyn. As with Playwrights Theatre's production of that play, Mahida's shortcomings are exacerbated by the drawn out pace of the production. For this, Davis likely shares the blame with director John Pietrowski as the script is replete with pauses. Pietrowski regards Davis as a unique voice in the American theatre. As with Grendelyn, it may be this view that has prevented Pietrowski from meticulously working with Davis to remove pages of enervating and pretentious dialogue.

Mariam Habib is a still and ethereal presence as the strange earth angel Mahida. Ryan Shams is an appropriately menacing presence as Ramin. Shams allows Ramin's words and actions to show us the range of his knowledge and basic decency. Jack Moran delivers an adequate, conventional performance as Thomas. The most enjoyable performance is that of Jane Blass as the ditzy, moronically bigoted Edna. Although the role is more suitable for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch than a work which has the guise of a meaningful play, Blass is fortunate not to be subjected to performing in the slow and brooding style which mars the other performances.

Although the decision of the idealized Mahida to remain in America should make it clear that our true republic with its Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms is the dream and hope for women abused by the fundamental Islamists (both Sunni and Shi'a), Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven feels like an attack on our democracy.

One problem is a lack of context. In order to portray America as the reason for the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, Davis has to banish the historical context of the ebb and flow of radical Islam, its barbaric internecine slaughters and internal hatreds, and intractable hatred for the West which dates back to over 1,000 years prior to the existence of America. Thus, our government's belief that the mass of Muslims of the Middle East would be so grateful for democracy (and freedom from the tyranny of both royal dictators and fundamentalist zealots) that they would cease their hatred of other religions and the West and internal conflicts flew in the face of history. However, there are virtually no words from Davis decrying the so-called republic run by Ayatollahs who murder and suppress any opposition, deny religious freedom, subjugate women, and threaten other nations with destruction. Neither is there any mention of the death and destruction unleashed throughout the world by radical Islamic terrorists. Yet, Thomas, the sensitive young American who would lead us on a new course, is given this speech by Davis:

 ... this country has embarrassed me, my country deeply ... The presumptions of some of the folks who govern us from time to time are massive, and I personally believe responsible for how torn apart the world is right now. Making it such a dangerous place to live. (pause) If there's a fire out there, you don't put it out by pouring oil on it.

What fire, Mr. Davis? It entirely escapes mention in Mahida.

Meanwhile, the wise fundamentalist easily disarms and defeats the big, bad older America(n) against his instincts because of her insensitivity and aggression. And, as already noted, Edna is the play's ridiculed, stereotyped American villain. It seems that Davis' answer to radical Islamic violence would be to allow murderous Mullahs and Royalists to subjugate the Islamic peoples of the Middle East and stand aside while they drive Israel into the sea and recapture the Alhambra. The only thing that makes Russell Davis' Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven less boring than his The Song of Grendelyn is his agitating vilification of America as the world's greatest threat to peace.

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven continues performances (Evenings: Friday-Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Sunday 3 pm/ Wednesday & Thursday; Varied Schedule) through May 9, 2010 at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940; Box Office: 973-514-1787; online:

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven by Russell Davis; directed by John Pietrowski

Mahida...............Mariam Habib
Thomas.................Jack Moran
Edna.......................Jane Blass
Ramin..................Ryan Shams

Photo: Carol Rosegg

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